Category Archives: historiography

The Invisible History of the Human Race

I picked up Christine Kenneally’s book because it was on the short list for the Stella Prize – and because my sister recommended it. Once I’d picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. The book is The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures (2014). As the over-long title perhaps hints, this is a hard book to categorise. It is part history, part science, with large and important chunks dealing with the contemporary issues thrown up by the new technologies of DNA analysis.

KenneallyChristine-584x893

Some of the issues are controversial. Kenneally deals cautiously and well with the inevitable issues of race and eugenics, but other controversies hadn’t occurred to me before: What are the implications of so much data (either genetic or genealogical) being held by private companies like Ancestry.com or 23andMe? What happens to that data when a company is sold? This happened to Kenneally, who had her genes tested by 23andMe, in the interests of research, in 2010. The company gave certain commitments about the privacy of her record – but it has since changed hands, and the status of that information is now unclear.

One of the issues the book covers is the history and meaning of family history. Genealogists are often dismissed as cranks by academic historians – and I know how infuriating it can be to sit in front of a microfilm reader, next to someone who keeps tapping me on the shoulder to tell me she (it’s mostly she) has just found Uncle Freddy – but Kenneally endorses both the validity of this research for the individual and the wider value of such projects, when they converge into large-scale studies, such as the Founders and Survivors project.

Kenneally is good at finding just the right anecdote to illustrate her wider arguments. The story of Thomas Jefferson and Sarah Hemings is widely known: for 2 centuries, Jefferson was a famous Founding Father with an unblemished private life. He and his wife Martha Wayles had 6 children. But an oral tradition also passed down that suggested that after Martha’s death, Jefferson subsequently had another family with one of the house slaves at Monticello, Sarah (Sally) Hemings.

The historical record can only go so far, but DNA testing eventually shows what historians could not prove: that Sarah Hemings’ male descendants carried the Jefferson Y-chromosome. Despite some rearguard action trying to finger another Jefferson – uncle or nephew – the dates of conception make it pretty clear that Thomas fathered Sally’s children. This story is not just of prurient interest. It also tells us a lot about the lived experience of men and women in 18th century Virginia, and how it diverges from the written record.

So far, so well known. But Kenneally looks at another angle: as well as 6 children raised at Monticello, there was another, older boy, Thomas Woodson, who was sent to live at another estate at the age of 12, where he took the name of his new master, a common practice. The Woodson descendents also believed they were descended from Thomas Jefferson – but repeated DNA analysis has failed to make the link. Sometimes knowledge is power – but sometimes it is a shattering disappointment too.

For me, it was yet another angle on this story that intrigued me. Sally Hemings and Martha Wayles were half-sisters. They shared the same father, for clearly droit de seigneur operated in the generation before Jefferson too. While the Hemings-Jefferson inter-racial liaison has shocked some Americans, and delighted many more, I’ve never seen any concern expressed that Jefferson was sleeping with his deceased wife’s sister, a relationship that was legally equivalent to incest at this time in English law.

Kenneally ranges widely across time and place. One study illuminates the Dark Ages: a map of the modern genetics of the British population shows that people still reproduce within old cultural boundaries, so that the kingdoms of Dalriada, Rheged, Elmet and Dumnonia emerge from the genetic data.

In Ireland the same Y-chromosome appears widely – in the northwest an extraordinary 17 percent of men carry it – and this is attributed to the influence of Niall of the Nine Hostages and the men of the Niall clan, who clearly practiced droit de seigneur on an industrial scale. Polygamy and easy divorce, even into the Christian period, must have helped. More generally, when a new population displaces the old, the marks of the invasion are more frequently present on the Y chromosome – as it true for Aboriginal Australians.

Kenneally looks at Tasmania, where the late 19th century saw a great forgetting, when the population chose to keep silent about its convict origins. Now of course everyone wants a convict ancestor, and Kenneally shows how her own research on her family origins led to a convict – and made her, for a moment, ‘a convict princess’.

This is a rich and rewarding book, clearly written and entertaining, but with a good deal of meat on its bones. To my unqualified eyes, it seems about as up-to-date as one can expect in such a fast-moving field. I can’t recommend it too highly.

NB: This review was written as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

What do I do with the Egyptian mummy?

I’ve been going gangbusters writing my book lately. This is why my blog posts have tapered off recently – sorry – but there are some important advantages in staying in the Zone, without any interruptions.

When I have a concentrated spell of writing, rather than fitting it in around other obligations, which is the natural condition of most university teachers (and most women, for that matter), I find that I make connections that I might have missed if I was working my way more slowly from chapter to chapter.

As usual, I’m wrestling with the agony of what to leave out. I’ve always felt that the clearest difference between an antiquarian and a good historian lies in their ability to stick to the wider perspective without getting sidetracked by fascinating trivia.

Biography gives the writer a little more leeway: odd facts can illuminate a personality, and they add colour and movement to a life. But odd facts can be a distraction, a sequence of one-damn-thing-after-another anecdotes, and they have the potential to distort the narrative if it relies entirely on the accident of what documentary evidence remains. Trivial facts need to be odd, as in occasional, not just odd.

So what do I do about the Egyptian mummy? Sadly, I think it belongs in the Kill Your Darlings file – but I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

In 1820, Walter Stevenson Davidson (the subject of my biography, if you are coming late to the party) went home to Britain on leave from his business selling opium in China. He took the ‘overland route’, the fast route favoured by travellers without the patience to sail from India right around the Cape of Good Hope. They took one ship to the Red Sea, then travelled overland, usually to Alexandria, where they took a second ship for the rest of the journey.

The overland route was a well-organized and well-beaten track, and groups of travellers usually went overland in convoy, with plenty of local servants to deal with their voluminous luggage. This route brought a lot of English and Scots into contact with Egypt for the first time – generating a demand for souvenirs on a grand scale.

Picture of an Egyptian Mummy

In A.B.Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies (1825)

Walter Davidson travelled with a friend, Thomas Coats, and in February 1820 they visited Thebes, where they each bought a mummy – as you do.

He purchased a mummy from the excavations near Thebes, at Gournon, in February, 1820, selected out of a dozen which he opened, as the best preserved. It proved to be that of a male. It was quite dry; the hair and teeth were most perfect, the former being very long, in great profusion, and smoothly combed down. The body contained only a large quantity of gum, and there was no flesh, or very little of it, on the bones. Every part was brittle. It was enveloped in cotton bandages to a great extent, and was contained within two cases. [Granville, pp.24-5]

Now, what on earth do I do with this story? It is in no way central to Walter’s life, and would interrupt my account of the events that brought him back to Scotland just then to deal with the aftermath of his father’s death. It would probably give a modern reader the wrong idea anyway: what is he doing wasting time sightseeing in Thebes when he should be hurrying back to look after the family?

Time is a relative concept, of course, but it would take a long exegesis to explain that in 1820, even travellers in a hurry had lots of time on their hands, hanging around waiting for porters or resting their animals – camels? mules? Both human and animal beasts of burden were important, because these travellers did not travel light. I understand why they couldn’t fit everything into a 20kg. suitcase, but how on earth do you get a couple of mummies home?

Thomas Coats later married Walter’s sister – I’ve mentioned this here – and gave his mummy to the Literary Society of his home town of Newcastle-on-Tyne. I’ve no idea what happened to Walter’s mummy. It is hard to imagine it gracing his living room, but who knows?

I’d love to include the story of Walter’s Egyptian mummy in my book, but I’ve no idea where to slot it in. It has no wider significance – unless I can, perhaps, use it to illustrate the commodification of human beings that was part of the 19th century imperial project. That’s a bit tortuous really – but it is a great story.

Note: Thanks to Simon Peers for first alerting me to the story of WSD’s mummy.
A.B. Granville, An Essay on Egyptian Mummies; with Observations on the Art of Embalming among the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1825), is available on Google Books here.
Granville is another of my Dead Darlings – I’ve written about him here.

Vale Colleen McCullough

Many years ago, the Australian Historical Association held its annual conference in Newcastle. The organizers were particularly pleased when the then Premier, Bob Carr, agreed to open the conference. Since Newcastle is about 160 kilometers from Sydney, this involved complicated travel arrangements, and Carr’s appearance had to be kept under wraps for security reasons – even in those long ago days.

Bob Carr projected a reputation as a scholar and a history buff. Known as ‘the Sage of Maroubra’, he is certainly bookish, and – almost unheard of in Australian politics – he doesn’t follow sport. So many of the academic historians attending the conference opening were more than a little miffed when he devoted most of his speech to enthusiastic praise for Colleen McCullough and her 7 volume Masters of Rome series. Continue reading

Sticks and Stones, Words and Images

The sad events in Paris remind me, in a strange way, of Margaret Atwood’s observation: ‘Men fear women because they may laugh at them. Women fear men because they may kill them.’ The sheer asymmetry of violence is equally shocking in the case of Charlie Hebdo.

It also points to the fact that when there is an asymmetry of power, the weapon of the weak is very often laughter. Truth speaks to power through jokes and ditties and cartoons, and in a despotic state this may be the only way that it can. So, for instance, in colonial New South Wales, convict women shared jokes and gossip in the female factory about the men to whom they were distributed as servants – and sometimes as sexual partners as well. In Soviet Russia, the jokes were a way of dealing with the autocratic state and its crumbling bureaucracy: ‘We pretend to work for them, and they pretend to pay us’.

Much the same was true in the years before the French Revolution, when cartoons and scurrilous gossip about the absolute monarchy circulated widely. Cartoons aimed at Marie Antoinette were particularly scabrous, pornographic and cruel.

Marie Antoinette pornographic image

Marie Antoinette and General Lafayette, c. 1790, from Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading

For once, a successful New Year’s Resolution

A year ago I sat down to write my New Year’s Resolution – as the blogosphere is my witness – to spend a minimum of 25 minutes every day working on my book, a biography of Walter Stevenson Davidson. According to the Pomodoro Technique,  25 minutes equals 1 pomodoro. As I explained a year ago, the aim of the Pomodoro Technique is to work uninterrupted for 25 minutes, then to take a 5 minute break. Do it again, then after 4 bursts of work take a longer break. Repeat as necessary.

366 days later, I am delighted to say that the technique has worked for me. I don’t always stop after 25 minutes – in fact I often become so engrossed in my writing that I don’t stop for an hour or more – but give or take a bit, I have largely stuck to the plan. There have been some hiccups – illness, family crises or a scheduled holiday – but I am now on track to complete my book during 2015.

Better yet, I’ve discovered that self-discipline does – eventually – become a habit. Continue reading

Emails and Paper Trails

There are two things I don’t understand about the Sony hack. First, why does anyone with the ability to accomplish such an impressive hack want to live in North Korea, when they could clearly sell their IT skills for millions in the global market?

Another film that caused offence Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Another film that caused offence
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

And second, why are people such idiots that they continue to write stupid or outrageous comments, and put them in emails saved to the company’s mainframe? Continue reading

Ebola – lessons from the past

The Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death* – tend to work as a team. War brings famine (and famine, or at least land shortage, brings war). Hunger makes people vulnerable to infectious diseases – and pestilence, famine and war all bring death.

Durer Four Horsement

Albrecht Durer , The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497-8)

But sometimes a new disease turns up unexpectedly, like Ebola in West Africa right now, or smallpox in the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, or the Plague of Justinian in 541AD, the first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, better known from its second appearance in 1347 as the Black Death.

Historians are good are looking back and finding explanations, and epidemic diseases are most deadly when certain preconditions exist: poverty, poor hygiene, poor nutrition and over-population all make things worse. But sometimes, there are no preconditions, and it doesn’t do to blame the victims: the Aztecs were doing just fine until the Spanish arrived, bringing smallpox to a population that had no immunity to the disease. Continue reading